Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Straight Thinking 101, Part 5

Decisions, Wisdom and “Sustainability”



So far, we have been using the case of Paul’s journey to Rome [Acts 27] as a prisoner on board a ship as a case study for making decisions in a world where what the facts are is hotly contested, and in which participants in the decision-making process often have divergent interests and values.

Game Theory, as we saw last time, has given us a useful framework, through viewing the decision-makers (and those who influence them) as playing a game with Nature, where the outcome, or payoff is the result of the decision taken and the environment it encounters as nature evolves to a particular state. So, for instance, in our case, the ship on which Paul was, having faced unfavourable winds for several weeks, had slowly crept into Fair Havens, on the S. coast of Crete.

But, the Harbour was unsuitable, probably because of a lack of good wintering accommodations, and also there was the question of exposure of the ship to damaging weather. So, it seems, the thought was, to slip down the coast to Phoenix, a more commodious harbour. (If a good, i.e. N or S wind came up, it could be done in a day or two.)

Paul, seeing an unwise course of action, had initiated a council of ship. He pointed out the lateness of the season, and the potential for a devastating winter storm, but the professional seamen were willing to run the risk, even though the weather was clearly marginal, and the majority were clearly desirous of a better port. So, the Centurion went with the majority and the experts.

Disaster followed, as we analysed last time: of the three plausible states of nature – (1) continued becalming, (2) good and sustained winds that would allow them to make Phoenix, and (3) initially favourable winds rapidly succeeded by an approaching winter storm front – they made the decision that exposed them to the worst outcome: slipping out to sea, only to be caught in a severe winter storm. We can almost reconstruct the thinking:

"Not exactly a prudent course of action, but one understandable in light of the prospect of a better accomodation, if only we cut a corner or two and run the weather fine: a day or so of good sailing wind would do. After all, we got away with it before . . ."

This brings us to the wider issue of sustainability: what happens when a path is pursued across time, and underlying trends and odds have a chance to act.

For, as a general rule of thumb, unwise decisions are generally unsustainable. And, even when we “get away with” such decisions a time or two – and think ourselves to be ever so clever – over time, the odds catch up with us, especially if we become more and more reckless. Until, disaster strikes with the sudden ferocity of that Nor’easter that caught the ship on which Paul was a prisoner.

(Resemblance to events in our personal lives, to the fate of institutions and business, and even nations, across the Caribbean, is NOT coincidental. The recent sniper shootings in DC are only the latest instance.)

But, why do we so often choose to do what is in the long-run, a path to disaster?

Simply put, and as was hinted at above, because we do not always immediately suffer the consequences of foolish or wicked actions. So, the pleasures of sin for a season deceive us into pursuing paths that seem right to us – they work to our advantage, don’t they -- only to end in shipwreck later on.

At institutional, community and national scales, it becomes a bit more complex. For, the powerful, wealthy and clever are often able to export the damaging consequences of decisions made to others in the institution or community. But, across time, the underlying environmental trends – political, economic, socio-cultural and moral, technological, and biophysical -- inexorably play out. [To be concrete -- as a Jamaican who has lived through the breakdown of one of the most promising of all developing countries in the 1960's --would Jamaica's decision-makers make the same moves again, if they could re-live the 1960's and 70's? There was no shortage of sound advice! Similar cases could be multiplied all over the region.]

For, actions have consequences in a world that obeys underlying laws of nature, and of Nature’s God: laws that govern politics, economics, ethics, biophysical environment as well as science and technology.

This is the underlying basis for the validity of the Bruntland Commission on Development’s 1987 definition of Sustainability as development that meets the needs of this current generation (bearing in mind issues of fairness) and that does not compromise the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Lurking under that principle lies Kant’s Categorical Imperative: that we must act so that if our example carries universally the result would be beneficial – think of what would happen in a world where everybody habitually lied about anything that was to their advantage. The resulting chaos would make having a society worth living in impossible! (Resemblance to current situations across the Caribbean and beyond is not coincidental.)

Deeper still, lies the Golden Rule of Christ: Do to others as you would have them treat you. (Matt 7:12, cf. Lev. 19:18.)

How does that play out on the ground? In the recent JTS/CGST Annual Ethics Lecture, I noted:

“ the two principles reveal why many Caribbean development initiatives over the past generation have proved to be unsustainable: they have been ethically unsound. For, development-oriented decisions and actions taken at individual, institutional, community and national levels have far too often been carried through without clear and consistent ethical reflection, leading to policies and actions that are insufficiently constrained by recognition of their likely impacts and consequences on other persons (especially the poor, the powerless and the voiceless) and on the environment. So, as the consequences of self-serving, shortsighted choices have played out on the ground, and as the poor examples set by top-level decision-makers have spread out across the wider society, chaos has too often followed.” [JTS/CGST Ethics Lecture, March 2002.]

But, in a world full of Atheists and Agnostics in Decision-making positions, power and not morality is likely to control decisions.

Therefore, next time, let us think about how to respond to the impacts of such a divergence in views and values, using sustainability as a bridging concept.

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